Formula One Scene

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It is easy to forget that the San Marino Grand Prix is a relative newcomer to the World Champion Formula One season, and a lot of readers have probably forgotten how it came about. In the 1970s there was a feeling in Italian motor racing circles that Milan and the Monza Autodromo had held a monopoly on motor racing and the Italian Grand Prix for far too long. The Italian Grand Prix dates back to 1922, and most of the time it has been held at Monza. There was always plenty of motor racing all over Italy, for many years on public road circuits, in or near sizeable towns. A few special tracks were built, but none could rival the Autodromo di Monza. It had speed, grandeur, popularity and it was very close to Milan.

By the end of the 1970s the Autodromo di Imola, on the very edge of the town southeast of Bologna, had developed and improved until the controlling body felt justified in making a bid for the Italian Grand Prix to be held on their circuit. There had been racing on the Imola circuit for many years; I can remember going there as far back as 1956 for a sports car race, and in 1963 Jim Clark won a non-championship Formula One race, but there had never been an Italian Grand Prix. In 1979 a non-championship Formula One race was held in September, won by Niki Lauda in a Brabham-Alfa Romeo. The following year the Italian Grand Prix was moved to Imola, the 1979 event proving that the circuit was more than adequate for a full-blown World Championship event. It was the 51st Italian Grand Prix and was won by Nelson Piquet in a Brabham-Cosworth V8, from the Williams cars of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann.

Although it was a great success and everyone liked the Imola circuit it did not seem like an Italian Grand Prix and Italian enthusiasm was very mixed over the idea of alternating the major Italian race between Monza and Imola. A much more serious facet was the financial stability of the two circuits, the Grand Prix obviously being the big money earner that kept Monza solvent, and Imola, having spent a vast sum of money to bring the circuit up to the required standard, now needed the Grand Prix to remain solvent. Neither circuit could exist financially with the Italian Grand Prix on alternate years so there was a bit of an impasse.

Without making a lot of noise and fuss the Italian sporting and business world came up with a unique idea that solved all the problems. For all those who were keen to keep the Grand Prix at Monza there were an equal number who were keen to have it again at Imola, and on neither side were there dissenters. Monza was the spiritual home of the Italian Grand Prix, like the Grand National is to Aintree, and the Derby is to Epsom Downs. The Italians had their Aintree/Grand National syndrome, but they did not have a Derby, and anyway, the FIA rules only allowed one World Championship Grand Prix per country.

In an incredibly short space of time the problem was solved. A bit further on south east on the via Emilia there was a small Republic called San Marino, a tiny little piece of land that was self-governing like a little island, completely surrounded by Italy and happily getting along very nicely, even having its own Automobile Club and International plate RSM. What they had never had was a Grand Prix, nor even a circuit in their tiny republic, but they could always use the nearby Autodromo di Imola which had proved itself suitable for a World Championship event. Thus the Grand Prix of San Marino came into being and the first event was held on 3 May 1981. It has been held every year since then, always in the spring time, and everyone is happy.

The Italian Grand Prix returned to its rightful home at Monza and is held every year in the autumn, so Italy (and San Marino) are very happy with a Grand Prix at the start of the European season and one near the end. Surprisingly the rest of the world seems happy with the situation and the event at Imola is looked forward to keenly by the Formula One world.

The recent event was only the eleventh Gran Premio di San Marino, a short life compared with the French Grand Prix, the Belgian Grand Prix, the German Grand Prix, the Monaco Grand Prix and even the British Grand Prix, but it is so firmly entrenched on the calendar, and is such a happy meeting, even when it rains, that it seems as if it has always been with us.

Starting the European season the whole affair seemed much more serious than the two races already held, at Phoenix USA and Interlagos Brazil, and everyone who had been using “interim” cars on the other side of the Atlantic now had their 1991 cars ready, so that the pit lane garages held much of interest. With two victories in two races the McLaren MP4/6 with its new V12 engine did not appear to have too much wrong with it straight off the drawing board. Three cars were in use, one each for Senna and Berger, and the T-car for Berger this weekend, unless circumstances were drastic.

Honda already have a number 2 version of their new engine, with even better low-down torque, but to the average spectator watching the red and white car going by, it looked very much like the 1990 car, the only real difference being in the higher pitch to the exhaust note compared with last year’s V10 engine. The colour scheme, however, of Marlboro red and white is about the only thing that has remained unchanged on the MP4/6, though the design follows on from the successful formula of last year.

Those other teams who had their new cars in America and Brazil came back to Europe with mixed feelings: some were in chaos, like Ferrari, some like Williams were confident that their new car was basically alright, Tyrrell were well-pleased with their new relationship with Honda and the V10 engine, Jordan were highly delighted with their entry into the fast and furious world of Formula One, Leyton House were hoping the V10 Ilmor would soon get over its teething troubles and the Scuderia Italia were progressing happily with John Judd and his new V10 engine.

Among the smaller teams AGS and Larrousse were far from being confident about their future due to shortage of sponsorship money and the world of Lamborghini as used by the Modena Lambo team and Ligier left a lot to be desired.

Of the teams that had new cars at Imola the Footwork team were in the biggest trouble. They had completed the first of the new A12 cars, a totally new chassis designed around the Porsche V12 engine, well on time and were at Imola for initial testing the week before the race, while the second car was being completed. Disaster struck when the front aerofoil failed on a very fast left-hand bend and pitched the car into the barriers at high speed. Michele Alboreto, who had been in control, was very lucky to escape serious injury, but even so he needed a lot of stitches in his right leg and was badly bruised. The brand new car was a complete write-off, which set their programme back so badly that they never recovered.

The two A11C cars had to be put back into commission, while the second A12 was completed in the paddock garages. While Alboreto did as best as he could with an old car, Alessandro Caffi waited patiently for his new car to be finished. With the second day of practice a complete washout, with persistent rain, there was little hope of the team doing more than keep its head above the water. It was no surprise that neither driver qualified for the race.

The Fondmetal team did not even get through the pre-qualifying session first thing on Friday morning with their new car. Olivier Grouillard drove the new Fomet though it was far from ready for serious motoring, but the team were satisfied that some progress had been made.

The Brabham team were in much better spirits as they had two of the new BT60Y cars, with Yamaha V12 engines, designed as a complete package and one of the best looking cars of 1991. Both cars qualified for the race and both cars finished their first race, which is something to be pleased about in this high-pressure age of Formula One. Mark Blundell was 8th and Martin Brundle 11th, though the latter would have been much higher up had he not been run into by Nigel Mansell at the end of the opening lap. Repairs at the pits lost the Brabham driver over a lap, but to have both cars at the finish was some compensation, for not many teams could claim that, even with well-tried cars.

While the very pretty little Brabhams came quietly on the scene, a bit later than they had hoped, the new Benettons arrived with much trumpeting and dazzle. As is the world of Benetton clothing, the new Benetton B191 is pretty garish to behold and not a particularly attractive shape, though no doubt efficient aerodynamically. Their weekend was far from smooth as the new cars seemed beset by “teething troubles”, a word that John Barnard seems to have picked up since leaving the McLaren team! If it wasn’t the new Cosworth V8 engines giving trouble it was bits on the Benetton chassis, and as fast as one thing was put right another would go wrong. Altogether a frustrating debut for a new design, and the real embarrassment was for Moreno and Piquet to have to line up on the grid behind the Jordan cars of de Cesaris and Gachot, using the production HB version of the narrow-angle Cosworth V8 engines. Ford, who finance the Cosworth operation for the Benetton team, were beginning to wonder if they were backing the wrong team. In the race Piquet threw his car away into the sand trap on lap 2, and Moreno ran in midfield moving up as cars dropped out until he was in third place, only to fall by the wayside seven laps from the end. Altogether a rather inauspicious debut for the new Benetton B191, now three races behind the serious teams.

When Dr Harvey Postlethwaite introduced the Tyrrell 019 last year, it contained two major design features that not many people really understood, but they created a “design fashion” which has caught on this year. The first and most obvious one was the aerodynamics of the nose of the car in which the centre-line of the nose was raised up, allowing the air to pass underneath and impinge on a flat plate that extended forwards from under the cockpit, providing downforce. The front aerofoils were still low down and hung from the nose cone by angled struts making the front of the car looking as if it had “whiskers”.

The other important feature was the front suspension that utilised a single shock-absorber/coil spring unit hidden within the monocoque above the driver’s knees. Each front wheel was mounted on double wishbones and the uprights were connected to the coil spring unit by long push-rods that disappeared inside the monocoque and operated a swinging link which turned the movement of these pushrods through a right-angle to compress the spring unit. Now, this was the clever bit, for this swinging link was so mounted that it was free to move sideways depending on which pushrod was “pushing”, thus allowing the whole “system of levers” to work freely. Personally, I am not quite sure that I understand the geometry or the theory behind the design, but it is still used on this year’s Tyrrell 020, and has appeared on a number of new cars from other teams, as has the raised nose cone and front aerofoils “hanging down like whiskers”. I am sure they all have good reasons, for copying the Tyrrell layout, but the only thing that was obvious to me last year was the driving of Jean Alesi, who made good use of any advantage gained by the Tyrrell design features. This year he is in the Ferrari which seems to go fast whoever drives it and regardless of design features. That it does not go fast enough is only the fault of McLaren-Honda and Ayrton Senna!

This year’s Tyrrell is powered by last year’s Honda V10 engine, and the Tyrrell 020 is very much a front-runner, behind the McLaren and Ferrari and Williams cars. Look-alike treatment can be seen on the new Jordan, Benetton, Brabham and Footwork, while Patrick Head and Adrian Newey have allowed themselves just a tiny hint of “whiskers” on the front of the Williams FW14. We used to talk about “trend of design” in Formula One, but with the shortage of real innovators on the scene it is more a case of the “trend of fashion”.

Until the weather broke at Imola, practice was getting very interesting, with lap times getting down to last year’s pole position time, and Senna actually improving on it during the Friday morning testing. Berger, Prost, Patrese and Alesi were hard on his heels, but behind him needless to say. The really interesting thing was the speeds through the Longines timing speed trap on the way down to the Tosa hairpin. In the morning Senna’s McLaren-Honda V12 clocked 203.454 mph (yes, Miles per Hour), Alesi’s Ferrari V12 did 201.40 mph and Patrese’s Williams-Renault V10 did 200.26 mph.

By any standards 200 mph is quick and few people can honestly claim to ever having been in a car going at that speed. When you look at a map of the Imola circuit you wonder where the straight is that allows such speeds. The previous long curve at Tamburello is taken at around 175 mph, which means there is a fair old amount of “grunt” coming from today’s top Formula One engine. A lot of us have probably driven cars with impressive acceleration from 65 mph to 90 mph, but try to imagine even more acceleration as the Formula One cars go from 175 to 200 mph!

Slowest of the lot on Friday morning were the two Footwork-Porsche V12 cars, neither of them reaching anywhere near 180 mph, but that team was in deep trouble since the week before.

In the Friday qualifying session Senna changed his tactics a little with adjustments to things like aerodynamics and gear ratios, and sacrificed a bit of top speed for an improvement round the rest of the circuit. His maximum through the speed trap came down to 200.56 mph, but his lap time improved by nearly a second, and that is a lot by any standards. Eight drivers clocked over 200 mph, the order being Prost (201.53 mph) Berger (201.16 mph) Alesi (200.86 mph) Patrese (200.62 mph) Senna (200.56 mph) Martini (Minardi-Ferrari V12 200.32 mph) Mansell (200.26 mph) and Morbidelli (Minardi-Ferrari V12 200.02 mph). On lap times it was a very different story, for the list read Senna, Patrese, Prost, Mansell, Berger, Modena (Tyrrell-Honda V10 — 196.11 mph best speed), Alesi, Morbidelli, Martini. Clearly maximum speed is not everything at Imola, but it is interesting, and with the rain coming on Saturday the grid order was settled on Friday afternoon.

In the rain only Berger went over 170 mph and in the damp qualifying session Alesi was the fastest with 184.87 mph with Nakajima (Tyrrell V10) next at 180.59 mph. I was tempted to take the long walk away from the pit area down beyond the Tamburello curve to stand behind the wire netting and watch the cars go by at over 200 mph, but the rain put a stop to that idea. The first time I was aware of 200 mph on land was some 25 years ago when I was into Drag Racing and some top-line Americans came over to England to show what it was all about. There was an occasion when 201 mph was the top speed (at the end of a standing start quarter-mile), and I went down the finish line to see for myself at close quarters. It was something of a disappointment because my eyes and brain could not take in such speed adequately. By the time my eyes had focused on the car it had gone by and had its parachute out and was slowing rapidly. Instant 200 mph is something I personally cannot actually see with my eyes, but I can appreciate electronically. I am sure I could visually appreciate it at Indianapolis where you can see the car for a whole lap of the track and the top cars never drop below 200 mph, but that is another world.

It would be nice if the television people used a bit of imagination and took a long sequence from a helicopter, showing their own Air Speed Indicator at something like 120 mph and filmed a McLaren or Ferrari coming up behind them and passing underneath at 200 mph and while still viewing the ASI at 120 mph the car disappeared in the middle distance. Mind you, the helicopter instrument would probably be calibrated in knots, which would confuse the issue!

As reported elsewhere, the actual race at Imola was a bit of a shambles due to the rain, but when I got home everybody wanted to know two things. (1) What was Prost up to? and (2) What happened to Mansell? When I tried to point out that Senna and the new 1991 McLaren-Honda V12 had won their third race on the trot, and that this time Gerhard Berger had really earned his money as the team Number Two, by coming home in a fine second place, and that nobody else was on the same lap as the McLarens at the finish, they said, “Yes, yes, we know that, but. . .”

It was quite remarkable the number of people who saw Prost spinning across the grass on the television and when the car stopped, he got out and stood there. The reaction of competitive-minded viewers was he should have started running off to the pits to take over the spare car. When I pointed out that he had gone off the circuit a long way from the pits, the reaction was that the “racer instinct” should have made him start running even if commonsense later told him it was pointless, and anyway he was not to know whether the race was going to start on time or be delayed due to the rain. A lot of people recalled Derek Warwick at Monza last year, when his Lotus skated upside down on its crash bars and when it stopped Derek ran back to the pits to get in the spare car, a pure “racer instinct”. I have a feeling that there maybe a complicated rule in the FIA book about Formula One that says a driver cannot re-join a race in a different car, and officially when the cars leave the grid for the Parade Lap they are under starters orders, which effectively means the race has started. One of the troubles with FISA/ FOCA/FIA management is that by the time I can get hold of a printed copy of the rules, they have been changed or rescinded. The only way to be in full control is to sit by a fax machine at one of the teams’ headquarters, but that would make life rather dull.

Anyway, the viewers of TV seemed agreed that “Prost should have done something when his Ferrari came to rest.” One or two suggested that it looked like a pre-planned affair by Prost to avoid driving in the rain in front of 100,000 Italians, but I thought that was a little uncharitable. Few people seemed to have noticed Berger’s McLaren spearing off across the grass in a lovely straight line, to rejoin the circuit at the foot of the hill, back in his correct grid position. As he lost control on the water on the track he had his car-to-pit radio switched on and said “Oops! I am going off the road.” The McLaren pit crew held their breath. Then Berger came back on the radio to say, “I am back on the track. OK” and the team breathed a sigh of relief. There was not much they could have done as once the parade is under way the race has started officially and the drivers are out there on their own.

And Mansell? Well he was in fourth position on the starting grid, but did not get away brilliantly as the grid turned into a cloud of spray, and spent the opening lap unsure of his electric gearchange mechanism. Meanwhile his team-mate Riccardo Patrese, with the same type of transmission, was away in the lead and having no trouble at all. Going into the last three corners of the lap, which form a sort of chicane, Mansell had fallen a long way back down the field and was fumbling about with the steering wheel rocking lever that operates the contacts to pass messages down to the selectors on the gearbox and was going relatively slowly as he got neutral instead of a gear. He was now about midfield and Martin Brundle was coming up to pass him with the Brabham-Yamaha V12; not expecting to see Mansell’s Williams-Renault V10 during the race, Brundle reasonably enough assumed that Mansell was in trouble and was heading for the pit lane, which you do at this point by keeping well to the right at reduced speed. As they approached the second left/right “jink” of the elongated chicane Mansell “found” a gear and promptly cut across in front of a very surprised Brundle!

The Brabham right front wheel hit the Williams left rear, deflating the Williams tyre, and spinning the Didcot machine neatly out of the way, but not before the Brabham nose cone was smashed and a steering link was broken. Fortunately Brundle was able to make it round for the second lap and get to the pits and have repairs done to his damaged car and rejoin the race. Mansell had nothing else to do but walk across to the pits and complain about “some idiot” running into him. By this time Prost had returned to the paddock and was murmuring about the Ferrari gearbox having seized up, but nobody believed him, even his own team, and the next day the local papers carried a statement from the Scuderia Ferrari stating categorically that they had inspected the gearbox and found nothing wrong with it. Two drivers who should have been out on the track battling it out with Ayrton Senna were nursing grievances that few people were interested in.

Before practice I had the opportunity to inspect the Williams gearchange system very closely, and the most notable thing was the delicacy of the electrical switch gear. Pivoting on the steering wheel hub is a transverse rocking lever which operates electric contacts in the hub. These are not switches, as in electric lighting, but tiny contacts like computer keyboard buttons, with an equally light touch, and to change up you pull the rocking lever back towards the steering wheel with a light touch with the fingers of the left hand. This contact sends a signal down to the mechanism on the gearbox which operates the selectors. At each signal from the left side of the lever the gearbox changes up a gear. At a signal from the right side of the rocking lever, done with the finger tips of the right hand, the gearbox changes down a gear. You have to go up through the gears in progressive order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 each change being commanded by a light touch on the left hand contacts. The right finger tips send the opposite signals down the wires and you change down, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 or to wherever you want to be. The system can be programmed to change in any pattern you want for a given circuit, for example changing down 6,4,2 and changing up 2,3,4,6 or whatever you want. At the moment the system is working on a complete sequential order of changing up or down, but above all it only requires the lightest touch on the lever to operate the electrical contacts. Patrese seems to have developed the required “light touch” but it looks as if Mansell has yet to master the light delicate touch. The Ferrari uses a similar system and last year Prost seemed to get on alright but Mansell had more than his fair share of trouble, and towards the end of the season was complaining that his gearchange always gave trouble and Prost’s never did, making it obvious that he thought the Ferrari engineers were doing something deliberate. Now it seems that Patrese’s gearshift mechanism is alright and Mansell’s is giving trouble!

Some people may wonder why they don’t stick to the good old fashioned gearlever connected to the selectors by rods and levers. The answer is that with the electric change the driver can keep both hands on the wheel all the time, which is no bad thing as cornering speeds keep going up. On the Williams system you can change up without easing the throttle pedal, which anyone who has done sprint motoring will know is a distinct advantage. With engine rpm going higher and higher all the time the day cannot be far off when we will see the engine running at constant rpm throughout a race and speed variations looked after by a fully automated transmission on the lines of a torque converter or infinitely variable gear train, or even some other form of power transmission. The present system control by electronics already makes rods, levers and universal joints obsolete, but sensitive drivers are a prerequisite.

Mentioning sensitive drivers brings us to the blinkered driving of Stefano Modena, going well in third place for much of the race, with the leading Tyrrell-Honda V10, but due to be lapped by Senna around lap 23. Any driver worthy of holding third place, even a lap behind the leader, must have his wits about him and have a good idea of where the leader is. When the leader comes up to lap them, obviously going a lot faster, most drivers will graciously give way either by easing off or moving to one side, and if it is Senna who is lapping you there is no need to do anything dramatic as he needs the minimum of time and space to get by. For something like 10 laps Modena did nothing to acknowledge Senna’s presence behind him, making no concessions to help, and in fact visibly baulking him on some corners. Fortunately for Modena, Senna was under no pressure from the second place man, so could bide his time and wait for the young Italian to move out of the way. Had Senna been hard-pressed by Prost or Mansell, as he might well have been, then I think Modena might have got himself run over by his unfriendly tactics. Some years ago Jonathan Palmer was driving a Tyrrell on this same circuit and when being lapped by the race leader made no attempt to get out of the way. Afterwards he said that “Uncle” Ken had instructed him never to give way to anybody. Now if you are on the same lap and racing against somebody, whether for first or last place, that is fair advice, but when you are being lapped by the leader I think that rule does not apply. Maybe I am old fashioned in what I think is right or wrong, but I know that not many people thought that Stefano Modena was driving properly, and those that followed him in Formula 3000 were heard to say that he drove like that long before he met “Uncle” Ken.

The shambles that the weather and some of the drivers made of the San Marino Grand Prix was a great pity because it had all the makings of a superb European “opener” for what promises to be a season full of exciting happenings. Someone’s misfortune invariably means good fortune for somebody else, and the end result of the Imola race was no exception for it allowed relative new-boys to fill third, fourth, fifth and sixth places, with a new face up on the winner’s podium alongside Senna and Berger. This was the young Finnish driver JJ Lehto driving a Dallara-Judd V10, a new car and new engine for this year from the Scuderia Italia from Brescia; Gianpaulo Dallara designed the car and John Judd and his team at Rugby designed the new V10 engine and Lehto was almost embarrassed about being up on the rostrum with the two great McLaren drivers. There was a happy irony about the situation as FISA rules make the Scuderia Italia drivers go through the early morning farce of prequalification, and on this occasion Pirro failed to pass the test in the other Dallara. Their third place should stand them in good stead when the situation is reviewed half way through the season.

Team Lotus were equally pleased with Mika Hakkinen and Julian Bailey keeping their Judd V8-powered cars in one piece and finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, for they were beginning to look as if they were heading for demotion to prequalifying.

Not surprisingly they all had been lapped by Senna, some more than once, and had all the “aces” stayed on the road and kept their cars in one piece, Lehto would have finished 9th or 10th. It would have still been a praiseworthy drive, and nobody begrudged him or his team a bit of good fortune. — DSJ

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